“Evil” is an adjective that has been much used and abused down through the years, being subject to hyperbole, partisanship and connotations of the supernaturally malign. Most thinking observers tend to shy away from it, leaving the populist commentariat to wallow in its use. However it seems to me that there are some things can have no other description. The political ideologies of fascism and communism, despite their repugnant nature, were not in and of themselves necessarily evil. Yet the two most politically incarnate forms of those beliefs, the German Reich and Soviet Union, were undoubtedly evil in many of their policies and actions. That is not to deny the historical, social and economic forces that gave rise to those dreadful regimes, or to place them outside the human condition. The capacity to do evil exists in all men and women, it simply requires the right – or wrong – circumstances for it to manifest itself. However those two nation-states, from concentration camps to gulag camps, could be described a little else but evil (and that includes those individuals, groups and territories who collaborated with both, from the Baltics to the Balkans).
Likewise radical political Islam is not “evil”, nor are its adherents. It comes in many forms, and even those given to violence in pursuit of their aims can act within certain bounds of morality and restraint common to most of humanity. However there exists those beyond any normative bounds, those who actions – however internally justified by politicised tradition or scripture – are undoubtedly evil. The Islamic State, ISIS or ISIL, is one such group. Judging it by its militancy and militarism alone it is no worse than any other actor on the Realpolitik stage, from American back-ops in the Horn of Africa to Russian “little green men” in the Ukraine. Politics by other means remains the prerogative of powers both great and small.
What makes the Islamic State different – if unfortunately not unique – is the casual barbarisms that accompanies it operations, and the terror it exercises over those it claims as its subjects, or chattels. IS an “evil regime” in ways that, for instance, a Cuba never could be, despite its repressive nature. (The many thousands that may have died through the actions of the Havana government since 1959 pale into almost insignificance besides the hundreds of thousands who have died through the actions of the United States and its allies since 2001. That one is a dictatorship and the other is a democracy – though many of its partners were not – does not absolve the latter of sin).
This detailed investigation by the New York Times is shocking to the point of emotional numbness:
“In the moments before he raped the 12-year-old girl, the Islamic State fighter took the time to explain that what he was about to do was not a sin. Because the preteen girl practiced a religion other than Islam, the Quran not only gave him the right to rape her — it condoned and encouraged it, he insisted.
He bound her hands and gagged her. Then he knelt beside the bed and prostrated himself in prayer before getting on top of her.
When it was over, he knelt to pray again, bookending the rape with acts of religious devotion.
“I kept telling him it hurts — please stop,” said the girl, whose body is so small an adult could circle her waist with two hands. “He told me that according to Islam he is allowed to rape an unbeliever. He said that by raping me, he is drawing closer to God,” she said in an interview alongside her family in a refugee camp here, to which she escaped after 11 months of captivity.
The systematic rape of women and girls from the Yazidi religious minority has become deeply enmeshed in the organization and the radical theology of the Islamic State in the year since the group announced it was reviving slavery as an institution.
The trade in Yazidi women and girls has created a persistent infrastructure, with a network of warehouses where the victims are held, viewing rooms where they are inspected and marketed, and a dedicated fleet of buses used to transport them.”
This is so grotesque, so genuinely deserving of the adjective “evil” that I defy anyone to provide a rational explanation through reference to “cultural traditions” or some other parsing of quasi-medieval behaviour in the modern era. From the Guardian newspaper:
“The late American hostage Kayla Mueller was repeatedly forced to have sex with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State group, US officials have said.
Mueller, an aid worker, was held for a time by Islamic State financier Abu Sayyaf and his wife, Umm Sayyaf. Baghdadi reportedly took Mueller as a “wife”, and repeatedly forced her to have sex with him when he visited, her parents Carl and Marsha Mueller were told.”
One may well argue the merits of the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Frankly there were none: it was a bizarre neo-colonialist misadventure conjured up by political leaders in Washington, London and elsewhere, and enacted with the willing – and unwilling – complicity of several tyrannies in the region every bit as repulsive as that which was overthrown in Baghdad. Additionally the so-called “war on terror” has been a “war to generate terror”, leading in no small part to the creation of the ISIS/ISIL parastate in the borderlands of Iraq and Syria.
However, surely there is some onus on those who birthed the Islamic State, and largely stood by as it reached it fanatical adolescence, to take a hand in its containment and destruction, beyond intermittent airborne “strikes” of dubious strategic value? Or has the actions of the Bush and Blair years, pursued by Obama in a more limited if still bloody form, forever stripped the “West” of any moral high ground it once – however tentatively, however hypocritically – possessed?